Seeing the Sea Change

This year’s American foreign-policy failures are there for all to see—and they highlight the shifting tides of global power.

The United States has had a bad run with its foreign policy since it failed to gather international support at the turn of the year for a military attack on Iraq. Although the U.S. has never achieved total omnipotence, even in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is beginning to look as if this bad run in American foreign policy might be more than just bad luck. It might represent the beginning of a sea change in world affairs as more and more medium-sized powers realize that challenging U.S. policy is not always as painful as might have been supposed.

In recent months, in addition to the Iraq debacle, Washington has suffered at least five major setbacks in its foreign policy. They are:

1. The failure to stop India carrying out five nuclear tests. Almost nothing in U.S. foreign policy ranks as high as the struggle to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and India was at the top of the U.S.’s watch list of nuclear-threshold states. Yet still New Delhi felt able to conduct five nuclear tests after a 24-year gap.

It is possible, though unlikely, that punitive U.S.-orchestrated sanctions imposed after the event will make India come to regret its action. But the key point is that New Delhi was not sufficiently worried before the event about upsetting America to stop it conducting the tests.

2. The effective collapse of the sanctions regime against Iran. The U.S. announcement on May 18 that it was exempting French Russian, and Malaysian firms from the sanctions required by U.S. law under the terms of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) was a major defeat for U.S. foreign policy.

ILSA requires sanctions to be imposed on foreign companies investing more than $20 million a year in the oil and gas sectors of Iran or Libya; and the decision to waive sanctions against a French-led consortium participating in a $2 billion deal to develop Iran’s offshore South Pars gas field marks the end of ILSA. The dam has burst under the pressure of European Union (EU) and private-sector lobbying and cannot now be repaired.

The defeat for the U.S. over the South Pars investment is a particular blow because it is bound to undermine U.S. efforts to prevent Iran becoming a major transit route for Caspian-Sea and Central-Asian oil and gas.

3. The stalemate in the Middle East peace process. America’s investment of political capital in the Middle East peace process is huge, probably unprecedented, yet it is proving incapable of shifting the process forward in the face of the resolute stonewalling on the scale of further West Bank withdrawals by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The fact that Washington is unable to force Israel into accepting its peace blueprint for the Middle East is another indication of the limits of American power.

4. The failure to defuse the crisis over the proposed delivery of Russian S-300 missiles to Cyprus. The proposed delivery of Russian air-defense missiles to Cyprus is one of the major preoccupations of U.S. foreign policy.

Turkey has said it will take military action to stop the deployment of the S-300 missiles in Cyprus, even at the risk of war with Russia. Greece, for its part, has said that any such action by Turkey would be a cause for war between the two NATO members. That alone is bad enough, but factor in the possibility that Syria could take a Turkish military entanglement over Cyprus as an unmissable opportunity to attack Israel, and it can be seen why the U.S. has expended such energy on trying to persuade Russia not to deliver the missiles, Cyprus not to deploy them, and/or Turkey to take a relaxed attitude to their deployment.

But so far all to no avail; and the missiles are still scheduled for delivery in August.

5. The failure to prevent Russian nuclear collaboration with Iran. One of the U.S.’s greatest fears is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Consequently, Washington has applied immense pressure on Moscow not to help Iran build a nuclear power plant at Bushehr. But Russia, despite its parlous economic condition, has shrugged off the U.S. pressure. On May 18 Russia and Iran even announced that they are stepping up their nuclear cooperation and that the two countries were considering extending their nuclear cooperation to include the acquisition of a Russian research reactor that would help to improve Iran’s nuclear know-how and train staff.

A Sign of the Times

Taken all together, the above catalog of U.S. foreign-policy failures begins to look like more than just a string of mishaps and more like a definite trend away from a world in which the U.S. can more or less always get more or less what it wants. If so, this is not surprising. All of France, Russia, China and India, to name just four major powers, are intent on engineering a shift from a world order dominated by a single superpower to what they call a “multipolar” world. On recent evidence, it looks like they are beginning to get what they want.

—Reprinted by permission fromIntelligence Digest